I got a letter today from someone who's never looked into The Theater Mirror.
Barbara and I have been corresponding intermittently for about twenty years, and I sent her some recent reviews via E-Mail just to keep her informed about what's going on in my life. So this morning she uncorked a great question that I had to dig very deep into myself to try to answer.
This is what she said:
Date: Thu, 29 May 1997 10:51:16 -0400
Subject: Re: Theater in BOSTON
What a complex fellow you are, my friend.
".....Because, you see, when Frank Annese paused on that balcony, all he could count were eight people in a 150-seat house. And they had given me a free ticket."
They played to an almost empty house? How discouraging.
Are you the kind of critic who is so selective that only someone as knowledgeable as yourself would appreciate the same theater experiences? Would a threatrical illerate like me see and enjoy what turned you on?
"...And E Grace Noonan is the family's Hope, who finally blows the whistle and allows these three sorely wounded siblings to seek whatever lives they can, finally free of the cage of family."
This one would be too painful for me. Jack (my co-vivant) and I have had a running argument about realistic suffering as entertainment. Since such dark and disturbing experiences as Marathon Man, Apocalyse Now, the Deerslayer and Sophie's Choice, I decided some things are too painful to watch. If that's "entertainment" I'll pass. I don't deny the quality of acting in some of these films, but I can't sit thru such deep and convincing suffering unmoved. I can only remember one book and one short story that hurt as much. I couldn't shake them or these movies for a very long time.
These were my reactions:
>Are you the kind of critic who is so selective that only someone as
>knowledgeable as yourself would appreciate the same theater experiences?
>Would a theatrical illiterate like me see and enjoy what turned you on?
"Theatrical literacy" is a damn good phrase. I'm stealing it!
It's true I see more plays than you do, and I've worked backstage, and I've read and written about plays for a long time, and talked with people who work in theater about theater. So I must admit I probably know more about it than you do.
I think that's the only reason people ought to have any interest in reading a review of mine --- the possibility that from my experience and involvement I might point out some things about a show that "theatrical illiterates" like yourself might otherwise miss.
But You know what You like, and I can't make you like what you don't. (People have tried to make ME like opera, or Henry James. They've all failed.)
The serious point about a review is that my opinion isn't Right; it's just Mine. And, if I do the job of REVIEWING a show properly, I'll have given you enough information about it to decide you Disagree with my opinion.
And apparently that's exactly what you did. If you were here in Boston, my review would have saved you from finding yourself quite painfully trying to like "Hunger" as much as I did. (During the performance I attended, someone did indeed find the show so painful she left in the middle of the first act, apologising to the ticket-taker on the way.)
Lately, I've been noticing disagreements I have with reviewers' opinions myself --- but in the other direction: I like a lot more of what I see, and I often like it better, than other reviewers --- and I don't always feel that the "evidence" they cite for their opinions justifies those conclusions. It has seemed to me that a laudable hope for "perfect" productions of "perfect" plays makes some reviewers concentrate so much on shortcomings and imperfections that they blind themselves to the genuine successes that might be there. There is a genuine danger that reviewers who try to protect their readers from imperfect shows are protecting them from All shows --- that the overall impression people will get is that nothing that happens on the stages around here can ever possibly please them at all, or worse yet, that if anyone is stupid enough to Like a show, their taste must be suspect.
"The theater is dying; the theater is dying; the theater is practically dead!" as the critics gaily sing in the Intermission Scene in "Me And Juliet"; it wasn't true when Rogers and Hammerstein wrote it, and it's not true now.
I don't review bad plays or bad productions --- but my threshold is admittedly low. Still, although I take no pleasure in destroying horrendous productions with righteous prose, I'll bet I get more pleasure out of my theater-going than most other reviewers.
But you're right, Barbara, that I approach plays --- and movies and books --- differently than you do, maybe differently than everyone does.
I think that listening to a lot of plays on radio as a child, when I was also reading books and comic-books, separated me as audience from the story itself. I always knew that what was happening in the story was happening to somebody that was Not ME. I do not "live" the lives of protagonists; I watch them from the outside. And thus I can endure watching or reading about many things I'd find it impossible to endure if I had to live them myself. For me, most fiction is about things that could happen, but not about things that are indeed felt as happening to me. Apparently, this is a minority view!
But for that reason, you're quite correct that I sit through performances about things many people would think repellent and emerge praising them to the skies. I'm rarely taking those things personally; what I am taking personally is the artistry or lack of it that went into that peformance. I see movies or plays sitting at the director's elbow, and I read from the point of view of the writer. It's the art and the artifice involved in making something, however unpleasant, Seem Real that impresses me more than the unpleasantness itself.
It's my friends the actors who want to BE those people who have a life on the stage; I want instead to see how and how well they accomplish that unreal reality.
But let's shift the discussion a little. I know, Barbara, that you and I shared a fascination for HEAVY METAL Magazine, which introduced a lot of quite sophisticated European comic-book creators' works to American readers. The events depicted in many of those stories were horrendously violent and uncompromisingly depicted.
Were you ever as turned-off by those stories as you were by SOPHIE'S CHOICE, by APOCALYPSE NOW, by THE DEERSLAYER, by MARATHON MAN, by what you know of HUNGER? And if not, why not?
Let me put words in your mouth about that: I suspect that you see the comics as artistic accomplishments that are outside yourself, while you see the movies and plays as "real".
And for me they are equally artificial. In fact, that's why I love them so!